April 2019

Gone with the Wind: Tracing Agricultural Migrant Labor

Lange’s photographs can be considered “care work,” the devalued labor, integral to maintaining human life. By identifying the distress of migrant laborers’ lives, Lange indicated where care had lapsed.

by Carol Quirke

Like Jacob Riis’s immigrant tenement sweatshop workers, or Lewis Hine’s industrial or child laborers, Depression-era photographs of migrant labor are woven into the nation’s collective memory. This memory often reveres the subjects’ fortitude, while repressing migrants’ life exigencies then and now. Dorothea Lange’s photos of migrant workers, taken for the New Deal under the Farm Security Administration (FSA), are emblematic; “Migrant Mother,” a photo of a mother and her children, stuck in a dreary, California pea field, is iconic.[1]  [Fig. 1.] 

Fig. 1 Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother” or “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two.” Nipomo, California, 1936.

Documentary photographs were believed to illuminate injustice to provoke social change, but nearly a half century ago a critique emerged which suggested that documentary photographs sustained the status quo, or worse, further exploited their subjects. This essay joins a new and growing body of scholarship responding to this “hermeneutics of suspicion” toward the photograph and its political possibilities by exploring Lange’s documentary photography as activism.[2] Lange identified labor segmentation used by agribusiness to exploit labor; a prerequisite to activism is assessing the forces behind inequalities. She also investigated collective solutions to migrant workers’ woes. Lange’s photographs can be considered “care work,” the devalued labor, integral to maintaining human life. By identifying the distress of migrant laborers’ lives, Lange indicated where care had lapsed.  Finally, the essay considers contemporary examples of photographers who confront the agricultural labor crisis with imagery. 

Until 1940, Lange was the photographer of California migrant labor for the FSA. She took over 1,300 photographs in California, a third of her output, from 1935 to 1939. Lange investigated California’s uniquely heterogeneous workforce, a “large, landless and mobile proletariat,” that began with white itinerants of the 1850s, and moved through multiple ethnic groups before circling back in the Depression to white “Okies.” Some sixty percent of California farmworkers were waged labor, like workers in steel, textiles and the auto industry. These workers, in Woody Guthrie’s words, came “with the dust and were gone with the wind.”  

Race, gender, and ethnicity-based labor segmentation structured California agriculture. and landowners were explicit in giving themselves the upper hand with such practices. Growers established a system in their treatment of Chinese workers in the 1850s that persists through today. The 1854 California Farmer favorably compared Chinese Americans to southern enslaved peoples. The Chinese were “to be to California what the African has been to the South. This is the decree of the Almighty, and man cannot stop it.”[3] Growers segregated workers on the job and residentially, controlled them via company camps, subjected workers to extralegal violence, and worked to deny citizenship and its rights. Vigilantism and the 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act ultimately cut Chinese workers in the fields. Ironically, growers who took advantage of extraordinary prejudice towards ethnic groups to get low priced labor, lost their labor supply when public xenophobia crystalized into legislation limiting workers from abroad. Lange photographed the “bindlestiffs,” and “Old time Chinaman of the type that originally followed the crops,” testifying to the previous century’s labor supply in California’s fields. Lange’s captioning identified labor segmentation; Lange’s belief in ethnic difference is also evident. 

Growers moved to other Asian groups for cheap, mobile labor. Japanese workers dominated fieldwork by the nineteenth century’s end. They leased land as tenants, and their expertise in intensive cultivation propelled them to land ownership. They soon controlled half or more of the irrigated acreage in San Joaquin, Colusa, Placer, and Sacramento Counties, particularly in truck farming, or fresh fruit and vegetables. Their success infuriated white Californians, who passed legislation barring aliens, typically issei, those who migrated from Japan, from land ownership.  Lange’s portrayal of Japanese Americans was sensitive. [Fig. 2.] Her “Japanese mother and daughter” posed against fruit crates in a field drew on a tradition of Marian imagery stretching back to the Renaissance and confronted a racism that denied Japanese-Americans’ humanity. 

Fig. 2 Dorothea Lange, “Japanese mother and daughter,” Near Guadaloupe, California, March 1937.
Fig 3. Dorothea Lange, “Filipinos cutting lettuce,” Salinsas, California, June 1935.

After the 1917 Immigration Act, or “Asiatic Barred Zone Act” denied entry to most Asians, growers recruited Filipinos, almost exclusively single young men who worked as U.S. nationals without citizenship, until 1934. Insisting on their racial difference, California soon extended anti-miscegenation laws to Filipinos. Men who resisted such limits were met with riots and bombings.  Lange’s 1935 photo of Salinas Valley workers suggests the workers’ travails. [Fig. 3.] Lettuce leaves furl out from a dry and cracked earth. The laborers lumber toward her camera. Bent at the waist, their hands reach down to the ground to cut the lettuce with the cortado. Imagine twelve or more hours bent in this stance. Viewers encounter the men’s physicality, the burden on their bodies.  [Fig. 4.] But in “Filipino Boys Thinning Lettuce,” workers are strung out in rows, and appear as part of some larger mechanism, much as corporate photography represented workers poised within a managerially-organized factory.   

Fig. 4. Dorothea Lange, “Filipino boys thinning lettuce,” Salinas Valley, April 1939.
Fig 5 Dorothea Lange, “Migratory Mexican Field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field.” Imperial Valley, California, 1937.

Lange also photographed the Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals whose numbers “quadrupled” from 1910-1930, making them three-quarters of the farm labor force.  California-based labor bureaus such as the Agricultural Labor Bureau of San Joaquin Valley sought them out and threatened deportation if workers organized for better pay or conditions. Lange showed Mexican-American shacks, and makeshift homes in dusty, unpaved colonias. [Fig. 5.]  Her photograph of a grandmother carrying a pail of tomatoes draws on a centuries-long tradition of images of field workers that emphasize the dignity of work. [Fig. 6.] Other photographs bear witness to the costs of labor, for example, her close-up of a careworn Mexican American elder in denim overalls, who stated, “I have worked all my life and all I have now is my broken body.”  [Fig. 7.] Growers claimed to like Mexican labor because “they will undertake work that white labor will not or cannot perform.” With the Depression however, Anglos (whites) pushed to deport Mexicans and Mexican Americans, ultimately repatriating between 300,000 to two million people.  Hence, Lange catalogued a period of intense social and racial upheaval in California’s fields, as white migrants from the Plains vied with brown migrants who had worked there for decades.  

Fig 8. Dorothea Lange, “Children at Hill House,” Mississippi, 1936.

Lange’s work also promotes an activist message im its insistence on the ability of citizens, through collective action, to obtain redress to injustices.  The FSA photographic section was designed to support New Deal state action, such as migrant camps, but Lange also made unionism a focus. In her trips to the south Lange embraced the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) while noting its flawed attempts at inter-racialism. [Fig. 8.] In California she sought out agricultural strikes, more than one hundred during the Depression. In the 1938 Kern County cotton strike several thousand workers had struck with the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), which employed a multi-racial, multi-ethnic organizing strategy. Lange wrote her supervisor, Roy Stryker, asking for better credentials to ensure her safety. “When you do need [a letter of introduction], you sure do need one.” She had tried to photograph “a mass of pickets,” but was almost run over by a “cop [who] galloped up to me on a very large horse.” Vigilante patrols kept her from the strike line.

Instead, Lange explored worker-led efforts to build community solidarity. [Fig. 9.] Her well-known photo of a gas station, whose owner had attached a sign advising “This is your country, don’t let the big men take it from you,” indicated small business owners’ disaffection from large-scale growers. Migrant workers and smaller business or farm owners, Lange implied, were allies against large-scale grower control. Lange depicted key allies such as the Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization, and the International Labor Defense, a Communist group, which distributed needed supplies to strikers. [Fig. 10.]  

Fig. 9. Dorothea Lange, “Gas station,” Kern County, California, November 1938.
Fig. 10. Dorothea Lange, “Mexicans, field laborers, on strike in cotton picking season, apply to Farm Security Administration (FSA) for relief.” Bakersfield, California, 1938

Lange’s portrait of a strike leader, a dustbowl migrant, shows him in front of a barn paired with a poster of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Lange’s subject was a “leader of the “Flying Squadron,” who picketed corporate farm fields by moving strikers from place to place via automobile caravans. [Fig. 11.] The man looks determined, his cap tucked onto his head at a sprightly angle; he conveys labor’s strength. Her placement of the union leader next to the politician suggests that addressing inequality requires not just elected leaders, but workers’ mobilization. Lange drew attention to unionization’s benefits in another photograph by depicting a young, “undernourished” girl, who had joined her parents for a strike meeting. [Fig. 12.] Union struggle benefited families and communities—not just workers.

Fig. 11. Dorothea Lange, “He came from an Oklahoma farm in April, 1938.”
Fig. 12 Dorothea Lange, “Undernourished cotton picker’s child listening to
speeches of organizer at strike meeting to raise wages from seventy five
cents to ninety cents a hundred pounds. Strike unsuccessful,” Kern
County, California, November 1938.

Lange’s photos can be seen as performing “care work,” contributing to activism. She engaged fully with her subjects, and brought them, their needs, vulnerabilities, and strengths, to the attention of other Americans, establishing relationships between citizens of different regions, means, races, and genders. Like other photographers, Lange illuminated the devastation of the Depression, but Lange’s photographs elicited a uniquely empathetic response from viewers. Lange identified the challenges migrants faced, and she showed them confronting these obstacles. One senses an inner tension as her subjects assess the conditions they endure.  Many beckon viewers with a fierce regard. They are recognized by Lange’s camera eye, and her photos push us to recognize her subjects’ circumstances and engage in dialogue with them.

The questions that Lange’s photographs provoke—about peoples’ cares, about how people care for others and for the earth, and about how the nation responds to the needs of its citizenry still polarize. The questions are politically unresolved. Despite state and federal regulation protecting farmworkers, and the United Farm Workers’ early victories, migrants’ lives and work remain precarious. Many work less than a full year, and make less than poverty wages.[4] Three-quarters of migrant farm laborers are foreign born, and anywhere between one-half to three-quarters of the foreign born are undocumented, hence more exploitable.[5] In today’s political environment these workers also encounter an intense hatred stoked by the nation’s president who exploits undocumented labor for personal profit and migrants’ marginality as renewable political capital.

Lange called her photographs “ammunition” against exploitation, and photographers impelled by her mission today document the injustices migrants face. Don Bartletti, a Pulitizer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times photojournalist, is currently documenting transnational flows of agricultural products as indigenous peoples from Central and Southern Mexico’s hinterlands labor within vast megafarms, where company stores, withholding of wages, barbed wire, armed guards, and child labor are common features. [6] Similarly, David Bacon documents transnational organizing efforts, and the efflorescence of migrant mobilization driven by new immigrants. Mexican photojournalist Liliana Nieto Del Rio investigates stressors pushing migrants out of their home countries, following the Central American caravan, set in motion by violence, inept  governments, US foreign policy, and free trade and climate change which displace farmers from their land. Magnum photographer Matt Black limns the lives of African-American “Okies,” who arrived in the Depression’s midst to the town of Teviston, California in his “Kingdom of Dust.”[7] [Fig. 13.] Commercial and documentary photographer Sam Comen’s incandescent “Almond Poling Crew During Harvest Near Lost Hills, Ca. September 16, 2009” shows a migrant brigade ensconced in the fields where they work.  They stare implacably at the viewer, their firmly grasped poles upright at the ready, weapons in a war of class and nation. Historian and documentary photographer Richard Steven Street in his Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000 (2008), asked “Where would Lange be?” as he sought to position when photographing Cesar Chavez’s 1993 funeral. Street’s title identifies his concern: how has documentary photography propelled farm labor activism. He first ignored “the same scenes that Dorothea Lange recorded during the Great Depression,” as stale or formulaic, but later realized such scenes explain “continuity and change” and are “an organizing tool.” These photographers all offer traces of practices that are not past, they’ve just moved forward in time and outward in space. 


Fig. 13. Sam Comen, “Almond Poling Crew During Harvest Near Lost Hills, Ca.” September 16, 2009.
Fig. 14. John Hood, for Caltrans, based on Don Bartletti photographs, 1990.

If the photograph is ammunition, it is also an equivocal trace. Graphic designer John Hood took Dan Bartletti’s early photographs of migrants fleeing to create Caltrans infamous I5 highway warning signs. [Fig. 14.]  Hood placed silhouettes on a brilliant yellow background.  Though the signs are thought to have prevented hundreds of migrant deaths, they are like traffic signs alerting drivers of deer. Who is endangered? Who is being warned? The sign reminds us that the photographic trace is an ambiguous one. Is the U.S. a nation to flee to, or one within which one must run? Can photographs respond to these inequalities, or only mark them? In marking them, what will we remember and what will we, citizens and people, do? 

Carol Quirke is professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. Her first book, Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class (Oxford, 2012) examines how business, labor, and media corporations vied to represent organized labor in an increasingly photographic mid-century media sphere. Her second book, just out from Routledge, examines the life and work of Dorothea Lange, using the feminist concept of care work. She has published in the Radical History Review, American Quarterly, New Labor Forum and Reviews in American History. She worked for a decade as a community organizer on women’s issues and in public housing.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, this essay draws from my Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photography and Midcentury America: Reinventing Self and Nation (2019).

[2] Joshua Sperling used this term at a recent lecture about his A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, New York City, December 5, 2018.   

[3] Paul Taylor, “California Farming: A Review,” Agricultural History 42 no. 1 (January 1968): 49-54.

[4] “Can We Afford to Pay U.S. Farmworkers More,” National Geographic, March 31, 2016 at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/03/31/can-we-afford-to-pay-u-s-farmworkers-more/.

[5] National Agricultural Workers Survey, in “Farm Labor,” Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, December 20, 2018, at  https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor/

[6] “Hardship on Mexico’s Farms, a Bounty for U.S. tables,” December 7, 2014; and “Along I-5, A Sign of the Times,” July 8, 2017, both Los Angeles Times.

[7] Matt Black, “Projects: Kingdom of Dust,” at https://www.mattblack.com/the-kingdom-of-dust.

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